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Inside the jaws that eat your e-waste

Inside the jaws that eat your e-waste

Last week I witnessed what happens to old PCs when they die--and get properly recycled. At a tour of HP's recycling center outside of Sacramento, California, computers, printers, monitors, and more get crunched into confetti that can be sorted and used to make other products.

The 200,000-square-foot factory is silent when the shredders aren't shrieking. Skylights beam down on orderly rows of cardboard boxes holding all manner of office electronics, which local workers pull apart and sort by hand: cords, CRTs with copper strips, circuit boards, aluminum, and the like. Some stuff, such as photocopiers, enters the shredding machines intact.

Each of the three shredders looks larger than my house. Once the engines begin to chomp and churn at deafening levels, conveyer belts lap up the old parts, then whisk them into the clutches of brick-size metal teeth. Next, four-inch strips get ground into cornflake-size chunks that are separated through a series of magnets and filters, then spat out separately. Start to finish, a PC spends between three days to three weeks here before it's completely taken apart.

I spotted no fine dust on surfaces and breathed easily, maybe because the plant changes its air filters a dozen times an hour, sending the metallic powder lining the filters to a refinery. Wooden shipping pallets that bring in new goods also get reused.

The facility is expensive to operate, in part due to the need to protect workers from sharp parts and toxicants during their eight-hour shifts. Yet HP managers say that keeping the pair of "e-cycling" plants in the United States is more efficient than sending waste abroad for disassembly where labor costs are lower and protections more lenient (the same can't be said of the final fate of products made and sold in developing countries). The company's recycling efforts apparently break even.

Questions about how to get rid of obsolete products are the company's most common customer service call. Consumers are often suspicious of recycling programs, given the piecemeal municipal efforts for household glass and paper, as well as dozens of conflicting state rules and the lack of national rules for e-waste disposal. And makers of electronics can't get enough recycled plastic to use in their new products. Because proper disposal of electronics is still the exception rather than the rule, most of the otherwise reclaimable parts lay wasted in landfills.

Disposing of old gizmos should be so simple that it motivates you to move junk out of the closet. HP's take-back program asks you for up to $34 to pick up a box of digital duds from your doorstep. Unfortunately, even with a $5 coupon toward a new purchase, HP's fee might discourage people who don't find the doorstep pickup enough of a draw. Find other options in our "Trash your old tech" feature and be sure to delete your data before you donate.